Lowdown & Funky: Don Was Riffs on “Exile”
Rolling Stones producer Don Was spoke about “Exile on Main Street” at The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles on June 3, 2010. The 200 seat Clive Davis Theatre was packed to hear the Detroit bassist talk about the music and play raw tracks recorded by the Stones in the early 70’s.
The Stones recorded much of “Exile” in the south of France and Los Angeles. The record’s title refers to Main Street in downtown LA, where Robert Frank shot the Super 8 footage that is the source of “Exile’s” cover art.
The Stones worked with Billy Preston and Dr John at Sunset Sound in Hollywood. Marshall Chess told LA Weekly that he remembers “Happy,” “Casino Boogie,” “Ventilator Blues,” “Torn & Frayed,” and “Loving Cup” being recorded there. Los Angeles gospel singers Venetta Fields and Clydie King sang on “I Just Want To See His Face”, “Let It Loose”, “Shine A Light” and “Tumbling Dice” during the Hollywood sessions.
“Exile” originally appeared in May, 1972. For the rerelease this year, Was was hired by the Stones to review over three hundred hours of tape from multi-track sessions recorded between 1969 and 1972. He produced eleven new songs from the tapes. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Mick Taylor joined him in the studio in New York at different times to add vocals and guitar parts on the new tracks.
Don Was talks about the Rolling Stones like a fan and a musicologist. He recalled his student days in the late 60’s and early 70’s when the Stones were perceived as political leaders. He mentioned that the Stone’s music resonates politically in Argentina today.
At one point during the evening, Was formed a cross with his hands and encouraged the audience to imagine a beat at the centre.
“The beauty of the Rolling Stones is that each of the five guys feels the beat in a different place,” he said. “If you want to play along with them it’s like diving into a deep wide bowl with lots of room to land. Charlie plays behind the beat, like Elvin Jones who played with Miles Davis. Bill is back there with him. Mick Taylor is a little bit ahead of Charlie. It’s comfortable, relaxed blues music. The centrifugal force of the rhythm is never lost. The music is loose, lowdown and funky. Muddy Waters used to hit that.“
Was played multi-track recordings of Jagger and Richards experimenting with vocals and lyrics on “Loving Cup.” Other tracks featured Keith Richards working on rhythm parts and Bill Wyman playing bass lines.
“Mick and Keith do a duet on the melody and the Stones live in the space between,” he said. “People don’t like Mick Jagger’s solo records because the duet is absent.”
“I agree,” said David Folkart, an LA musician at the event. “Jagger’s solo records never sound as good as Stones records. Jagger and Richards make a special sound when they play together that doesn’t happen when they play apart.”
Was spoke about the importance of Jagger’s lyrics. “The lyrics are highly evocative and impressionistic. They allow you to project your own life into the music. The songs on “Exile” can be about anything.”
Was maintains that Bill Wyman is one the best bass players of all time. “Bill plays linear melodic lines like James Jamerson. His bass digs in like a guitar. You can tell by his chops that he was listening to a lot of funky people.”
Was said he aspires to be invisible as a producer. “There is something unsavoury about leaving your thumbprint on a record,” he said.
A guy in the audience asked Was if the languid sound of “Exile” was a reflection of the musicians using heroin. Was said he didn’t know if heroin influenced the sound but he explained that cocaine dulls the sense of hearing and joked that when he hears a really bright record he knows what was going on in the recording studio.
Listen to the Don Was talk about “Exile” on NPR.
Read the Don Was bio on the Rolling Stones website.
Exile on Sunset Blvd is an excellent article by Michael Simmons.
See Vicky Sapp’s photograph of Don Was on the soundstage at The Grammy Museum.
Check out the Sunset Sound website.